The roles of mentors and sponsors, although closely aligned, are also different. While a mentor supports your development, a sponsor connects you to actual job opportunities. Sponsors are people in positions with enough clout to recommend you for promotions they learn about. It’s also not uncommon for one person to be both mentor and sponsor.

Both mentors and sponsors can help widen our perspective, identify alternatives and enhance our ability to see ourselves as others see us. They can also help us strengthen our critical feedback muscles in an era when humility is seen as the new smart. How we handle feedback is important if we want to be viewed as a valuable member of the team. 

Like finding a mentor, finding a sponsor can be challenging – especially if you are not naturally inclined to seek out support for advancement. But if you’re looking for ways to move up, it’s important to be deliberate about the connections you make and the goals associated with those connections.

Here are 4 important questions that can determine if you’re ready to be sponsored.

  • With whom am I already connected that has the power to promote me, or direct knowledge of opportunities within my current company? It can be intimidating to cast a net into unfamiliar waters, so assessing your current network may be a more comfortable place to start. If you look at your existing connections through the lens of sponsorship, you’re likely to come up with a respectable list of influential people who know other influential people. They are people who are well networked and informed. They seem to know a surprising amount about what’s happening inside and outside of the company. Everyone, including the company’s leadership, likes and respects them – which may mean building a relationship with them is fairly easy.
  • Second question:  Besides my current network, where else might I find a sponsor? Networking events are specifically designed to help you meet people outside your company. You can also make great connections through post-graduate, continuing education or skill building programs. Volunteering, particularly at the Board level, is another great way to connect with new people who are committed to having an impact beyond their 9-to-5. 
  • Third question:  Do I have a solid track record?  You need a sponsor to plug you into their cherished network – which means your performance reflects on them as well as you. Are you worthy of someone putting his or her own reputation on the line?
  • Fourth question:  Is your ambition sincere?  Are you genuinely ready to increase your level of engagement and commitment? Or do you just want out of the job you’re in? This is an important distinction. If you’re asking someone to put themselves out for you, you have an obligation to deliver.

Once you’ve assessed yourself and your connections, and made the necessary adjustments that will make you a worthy risk, connect with your mentor — if you have one — and turn them into your sponsor. Communicate that you’re interested in a bigger role and would like her help. Don’t leave it to chance that your mentor knows your ambitions and intentions.  Be clear about what you want and ask him to play a role. 

No mentor? No problem. You’ve got your list of people with relationships and clout.  Invite a few of them to have lunch, or coffee, or a one-on-one conversation so you can share your desire to grow. Briefly explain what you have to offer in a bigger role and ask them to keep their eyes open for opportunities for you.

Finally, if an opportunity does come you way as a result of this relationship, be sure to graciously thank your sponsor.  Then, be willing to do the same for others.

Pay it forward.